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Teenage wheelie crews take to Santa Rosa streets as part of ’bikelife’ movement

As the sun faded over downtown Santa Rosa on a recent afternoon, a crew of a dozen or so teenagers on single-speed pedal bikes cruised down Mendocino Avenue to the Old Courthouse Square.

They gathered at the north end of the plaza, taking turns popping wheelies, some hopping on top of their bike saddles or leaning back to drag one hand across the ground while balancing their front tire in the air.

Wheelie crews like these have become a common sight in Santa Rosa and elsewhere in Sonoma County. They’re part of the global “bikelife movement” ― a community of urban riders who perform tricks in parks and on city streets and post videos of the stunts to social media.

“We ride for fun and do tricks to impress our friends,” said Devan Tucker, 14, at the square. “It makes us feel good about ourselves because we can accomplish something.”

Some see the mostly high school-aged riders as a dangerous nuisance, especially when large “rideout” groups crowd local streets and weave through traffic.

Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Chris Mahurin said officers have received complaints about bike crews from drivers, as well as from some downtown business and residents. Police rarely hand out citations, instead warning riders to avoid the middle of the road, Mahurin said.

Alan Cortes, 14, said police have not been a hassle, but motorists sometimes get angry at him and his friends for riding outside of bike lanes. He’s also noticed people on the community app Nextdoor complaining about bikers blocking streets or sidewalks.

Cortes is unbothered by their reaction.

“I see it as a good thing because most people are inside being unhealthy and staying in doing nothing, but we’re out here exercising,” he said.

Cortes and Tucker started riding almost a year ago during the pandemic, after learning about bikelife street riding from their friends.

The growing subculture ― which also can include motorcycle and four-wheeler riders ― has been embraced by hip-hop stars as well as former NFL running back Marshawn Lynch, who’s led group bike rides through the streets of his native Oakland.

While some news reports have painted wheelie crews as reckless troublemakers, supporters say the style of riding is harmless and keeps kids from getting caught up in drugs or other dangerous activities.

Justin Richter, a sales representative at Bike Peddler in Santa Rosa, said he first noticed the oversized BMX bikes these riders prefer gain popularity about three years ago.

“Every year, it’s been getting bigger and bigger,” Richter said.

Back at Old Courthouse Square, members of the bike crew were excited at the prospect of a Press Democrat photographer taking their picture. They lined up to try their best tricks, eager to share their names for the paper.

As dusk fell, some headed home while others rode to a nearby parking garage to continue honing their technique. With little else to do as the pandemic drags on, the group expected to meet up again at the square the next afternoon.

“We’re here every day,” Tucker said.

You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at ethan.varian@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5412. On Twitter @ethanvarian

Ethan Varian

Housing and homelessness, The Press Democrat 

I've lived in California for most of my life, and it's hard for me to remember when the state hasn't been in a housing crisis. Here in Sonoma County, sharply rising housing costs and increasing homelessness are reshaping what was long considered the Bay Area’s “affordable” region. As The Press Democrat’s housing and homelessness reporter, I aim to cover how officials, advocates, developers and residents are reacting to and experiencing the ongoing crisis.

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